I recently attended a trade mission to Paris (sounds grand doesn’t it?), as part of a trip organised by small business support organisation Enterprise Nation. The mission was focussed on ‘exporting’ and would provide an insight in to what’s required to export products to France, as well as meeting a range of buyers from organisations such as Eurostar and Sodexo.
Initially I was hesitant to sign up, partly due to the cost for the two day event (£500) but mainly as a brand new startup, our focus is currently the UK, albeit with future intentions to export. Twenty four other food and drink brands would also be on the trip, however, so apart from the opportunity to pitch our coffee to Eurostar and Sodexo, the opportunity to learn from these already successful entrepreneurs was one too good to miss.
So off we head to Paris on the Eurostar, all 25 businesses armed with cases full of product samples, which made for a delightful journey sampling them all! The two days were non-stop and very well organised, hearing from export experts about the finer details of exporting, as well as visits to markets and supermarkets to explore what sells in France already. What was most interesting and useful for me, however, was talking and listening to the other businesses on the trip. Their experiences and knowledge is both fascinating and priceless, and amongst all of their stories and advice for me, I observed three common themes:
- Businesses take time to build – this may be obvious to some and there are no doubt exceptions to the rule but as someone who is both ambitious and impatient, this was slightly disappointing to hear but also comforting in a paradoxical sort of way. Many of the businesses I travelled with spent their first 12+ months developing their product and getting to know their market, before they sold at their first local market or got listed in Harvey Nichols. So whilst I’m eager for New Kings Coffee to be a success right now, I’m comforted that 6 months in to our journey, we’re making steady and sure progress.
- Compromise is a necessary evil – most of the businesses I met have had to compromise on something to do with their product, particularly early on. This could be something to do with the actual product itself, the packaging (one brand had boxes that wouldn’t stay shut but were cheap!), or more commonly the profit margins they were hoping to achieve. Compromise, it seems, is a necessary evil of running a business, especially in the early days when resources are so much in demand.
- Don’t judge a book by it’s cover – I was the youngest ‘business’ on the trip and quite nervous in meeting well established brands, fearing they would be ‘out of my league’ in terms of their business knowledge and achievements. And to some extent this was true but listening to their stories and experiences, however, revealed a reality and vulnerability that was grittier than the well-polished exterior of their brands. For example, the business that has their product listed in Selfridges yet 3 years on still makes this on their own, by hand and in their kitchen. This example and others gave me encouragement that you can have a successful brand despite challenging circumstances behind the scenes.
Above all, my experience of these entrepreneurs, and many like them, is that they are generous folk. They were so generous with their advice, feedback and support that it made the trip really worthwhile.
So, when in Paris, listen to the Brits!
To read The Times' article about the Paris Trade Mission, click here.